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Syracuse football vs. Colgate preview: Five things to watch

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Of course you’re tuning in tomorrow. Here’s what to look out for.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange’s 2016 football season kicks off in just over 24 hours when the Colgate Raiders come to town. Though Colgate is an FCS program, we obviously have some history with the nearby school. They’re also ranked right now, which should at least give some pause to fever dreams of a 75-0 shellacking.

So what should you keep an eye out for during Friday night’s contest? Five key things that could make or break the Orange’s game plan:

  1. Colgate quarterback Jake Melville vs. SU’s front four

In past years, Syracuse has exhibited plenty of struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks, but that was in Scott Shafer’s old scheme. Still, Melville brings a formidable resume to the table through both ground and air. In 2015, he ran for 1,073 yards and 11 touchdowns, while tacking on 2,552 yards and another 11 scores via pass. While not overly accurate (around 55 percent completion rate), those numbers still get the job done, and make him very dangerous with time in the pocket.

So can the Syracuse defensive line get to him?

We’ve covered the group’s depth issues, but the bigger question is whether or not this very green group can pressure the quarterback in a new scheme. Brian Ward’s defense at Bowling Green managed just 2.07 sacks per game last year, though that was still an edge on the numbers Syracuse put up in that department (1.92 per).

Further, if they can generate pressure, will that result in the speedy Melville beating them to the edge for big gains on the ground? Last year’s Falcons squad was susceptible to getting hurt my mobile passers. They allowed 561 yards and five touchdowns in five games vs. dual-threats, though that mark does include 269 and four allowed to Georgia Southern in the bowl game.

2. Eric Dungey vs. Colgate pass defense

Colgate’s pass defense ranked among the worst groups in FCS last year, allowing nearly 3,500 yards (107th) and 22 touchdowns through the air over the course of 14 contests. More damning, the Raiders allowed 6.95 yards per attempt and 10.65 yards per completion. Their only saving grace was sacks. The Raiders tallied 36 on the season (26th overall), and their top three sack artists — Pat Afriyie, Brett Field and Alex Campbell -- all return this fall.

The key for Dungey, who did show himself a capable passer with time to throw, could be success on first down. As ESPN’s David Hale pointed out in August, Syracuse QBs averaged 9.28 yards per drop-back on first down last year (seventh-best rate in FBS). Some of that is certainly due to Zack Mahoney as well. But utilizing that sort of ability against a weaker pass defense sounds like something we’ll be seeing a lot of, especially since Dungey will be releasing the football much quicker in 2016 than he had before.

3. Syracuse’s stamina, especially on offense

Tim Lester’s offense ran just 751 plays on the entire 2015 season, a mark that was tied for 126th in the country. Needless to say, the attack was slow, and that’s what these players are likely used to in game situations.

All of that will change at kickoff tomorrow. Bowling Green ran 1,136 plays in 2015 (second in FBS) and 1,103 in 2014 (fourth). A potential 300- or 400-play jump is absolutely expected for the Orange this year, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be physically ready for that sort of pace increase on day one. Practice is one thing, and games are another. In a season that will surely cycle in a lot of different contributors (especially at wide receiver), expect more on Friday while Dino Babers feels out his team’s abilities to keep up.

The plus side here is obviously that this sort of pace, if executed well, should be able to wear down Colgate over time. FCS rosters feature just 63 scholarship players, and the Raiders were certainly tested with pace last year, allowing 987 offensive plays. Even in a closer game, one would think SU brings a clear advantage in this department as the contest wears on.

4. Could Colgate’s receivers expose the Orange’s beleaguered secondary?

Keep in ind this is predicated on Melville getting time to throw, as we discussed above. Still, if he can withstand some pressure, the Colgate passer does have options to throw to. Both of last year’s leading receivers, John Maddaluna and Alex Greenawalt, are back. While their numbers aren’t all that gaudy (910 yards and two TDs for the former, 598 yards and five TDs for the latter), both have speed on the outside and create larger gains out of limited opportunities. Greenawalt, in particular, is a bigger guy (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), and that should be a significant advantage if he’s matching up with the Orange defensive backs.

Syracuse’s secondary is a bit banged up at the moment — several players likely out for the opener -- which could be cause for concern. The most notable absentee is Rodney Williams, who even if he didn’t start, would be logging significant minutes at safety. Expect Cordell Hudson and Corey Winfield to get tested at the corners. Over the top, Kielan Whitner will have his hands full at safety. We’ve seen no-name receivers do some things to this group before. Maddaluna and Greenawalt also don’t appear to be no-names.

5. Punt returns could swing in Syracuse’s favor

In 2015’s opener vs. Rhode Island, Brisly Estime returned a punt for a touchdown, establishing a year of quality work in the role while teams increasingly avoided kicking it to him. This year, Colgate breaks in a new punter after the departure of Nikko Armiento. Armiento was serviceable (39.58 yards on average), but he was also assisted by one of the better punt return coverage units in the country. The Raiders allowed just 6.6 yards per return, and only allowed 25 returns.

New punter Josh Cerra has yet to punt a football in a collegiate game, and one might think he’ll completely avoid Estime, or perhaps, try his luck at pinning the Orange deep. This strategy might not work out against the more physical SU return team, and the speedy Estime.

***

There’s a whole lot more to toss around for this game, but hopefully this serves as a good starting point to frame discussion about Friday’s matchup. Syracuse is favored on paper, as they should be. But that doesn’t mean Colgate is a pushover.

Any other key matchups or narratives you’ll be focused in on? Weigh in below.